by Doug Carpenter


Simple Gifts and
Small Pleasures

For almost 15 years, the gift that I’ve been given of writing this column for you has arrived every month wrapped in a variety of challenges, one of the biggest of which is coming up with an appropriate topic for a holiday column like the one you’re reading now. Having conducted that search as many times as I have, I’ve found that the experience is pretty much the same as if I were shopping for a Christmas tree — except that it’s my brain rather than the back of my station wagon that ends up full of pine needles. [I’m pretty sure there are still some up there from last year.]

The process is fairly simple. I go out hoping to find something that’s both sturdy and “sincere,” trying not to feel guilty for ignoring the ones that look small and scrawny — like the droopy, neglected little tree in 1965’s beloved animated classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas. [Considering how faithfully Boomers have watched the special’s annual holiday rebroadcasts for more than 50 years, I’m surprised you don’t see more of them break into Snoopy’s happy dance when they finally manage to get the Scotch Pine they just seriously overpaid for crammed into the back of their Dodge Caravan.] I just have to be sure the verbal branches on whatever I drag home are strong enough to support the sometimes heavily-loaded Boomer humor I like to decorate with.

It means a lot to me that I get to do this by giving you something that comes from my heart. Something that I made with my own two hands [...O.K., and a keyboard...] rather than purchased on-line and impersonally had shipped to you via three-day ground express. [I have absolutely nothing against consumerism, but plagiarism just doesn’t seem to be quite in keeping with the spirit of the season.] Fortunately, words come in all sizes, so at least I don’t have to worry about you taking it back because it doesn’t fit.

Now, if that warm, fuzzy stuff makes me sound more than a little sentimental — then, yeah — you got me. But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise, since we Baby Boomers are, by and large, a pretty big-hearted lot. Particularly so when it comes to giving, whether it’s “giving back to humanity” or just stubbornly not giving in on, well, most things. In fact, in many ways, membership in the Baby Boom Generation is the quintessential “gift that keeps on giving” — at least when it’s not taking.

I say that because, the truth be told, while we Boomers have probably gotten more than our share of the stuff we wanted [...or believed we wanted...], it turns out that having an all-access pass to the “Gifting Games” wasn’t quite the sweet deal we thought it would be. Whether it was the holiday spending festival that seems to start earlier every Fall or the smaller-but-still-dollar-driven celebrations held on our birthdays, we couldn’t wait to participate in what was essentially an on-going Olympiad of overindulgence.

Over time, of course, the emphasis of these “games” refocused from “giving” to “getting.” With 20th century mass marketing flooding our brains with more tantalizing, persuasive information than we ever needed to know about what was out there to be wanted, how could we not? Which meant that, inevitably, as the world around us changed, we changed with it — and not necessarily for the better.

After all, we were getting older, so naturally our tastes in holiday gifts were bound to change from year to year. In fact, looking back chronologically over the course of the Boomers’ formative years to see just what must-have toys topped previous generations’ annual kid wish lists speaks volumes. And the story it tells is as painful as it is predictable.

Obviously, you can’t start too far back or you’ll risk beginning your journey in the quaint and far less economically-robust days when kids were happy with almost anything they found wrapped up with their name on it. They considered themselves lucky to have the blocks and balls and dolls and puzzles — toys from which they seemed to have no trouble whatsoever harvesting endless hours of joyful play. [And when you’re fighting “cabin fever” in an actual cabin, you need all the help you can get.]

Time shift forward a little now to the still comparatively-unpretentious middle-of-the-20th-century war years and you’ll find yourself in a world on the verge. Of what? No one knew. But it was definitely coming, and we — the post-war “boom” babies — were coming with it. In the meantime, kids were still... kids.

And do you know what they were hankering for big time back in the day? Well, in 1940, it was those little bottles of bubble soap that came with a “magic blowing wand.” By 1941, good little girls and boys were hoping that they’d get Tinker Toys. And during the 1942 holiday season, it was Little Golden Books that were flying off the shelves. Yes. Children actually read books... that were printed on paper... that they held... in their hands. [I couldn’t make this stuff up.]

By 1945, though, technology would begin to creep in as our innocence was being ushered out. Global developments like the U.S. military’s offensive deployment of the first nuclear weapons would leave adults here and around the world frightened even as America’s children were delighted by the introduction of the Slinky.

In its heyday, everyone knew its catchy jingle, “Everyone knows it’s Slinky.” But what everyone didn’t know is that the popular, stair-walking spring was invented — by accident — by a mechanical engineer named Richard James while he was conducting research on shipboard instrument stabilization for the United States Navy. The days of the simple toy that delivered simple joy, however, were numbered.

Hopscotching across the years and the legions of future consumer Boomers that would follow, the tug-of-war between low-tech and high-concept continued. A decade or so later, board game Candyland, the bodily-functional Betsy Wetsy doll, and good, old Play-Doh would be fighting — and, at least for a while, winning — the holiday shopping battles of 1954, ’55 and ’56. But you already know who ultimately won.

By the time another 10-plus years had passed, the deed was undeniably done — as witnessed by the ascension of movie mania-milking Star Wars action figures, the musical code-breaking Simon touchpad, and Atari’s trailblazing computer gaming console to their respective top spots on 1977, ’78 and ’79’s seasonal sales charts. And what did they have in common? [Aside from all requiring batteries, I mean.] They all embraced the same, now-widely-conceded belief that — not matter how new and cool something may be — if it doesn’t incorporate some kind of technology, it’s out-of-date before it leaves the gate.

After that, is it just me, or has it all become a blur? A big, hundred-dollar-bill-green blur that goes by literally at the speed of light, since that’s exactly how fast a TV signal travels as it brings us the endless stream of commercials promoting the latest, greatest, “deprive your kid of this and you’re a horrible parent” product. And just like they say that having money can change you, spending it — excessively and imprudently — on someone else can also change them.

Remember the Slinky we were reminiscing about before? The day it first went on display in Philadelphia’s legendary Gimbels Department Store, its entire initial 400-unit production run sold out — in 90 minutes — for $1.00 each. That was in 1945. Sixty-five years later, the most kid-requested holiday “toy” of 2010 was the newly-introduced Apple iPad. Oh... and they sold more than 300,000 of them the first day and a million within four weeks. Retail price? $499. [And that was just for the base model.]

Admittedly, that may seem like a lot of money for something you might well have trouble thinking of as a “toy” and that a kid wouldn’t exactly “play” with. But I suppose they could use it to go on-line and watch a YouTube video of some other kid having actual fun playing with an actual toy.

Maybe even a Slinky. [Wouldn’t that be ironic?]

© 2018 Doug Carpenter

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